But up first, we pause a moment to reflect on the Weiner-Picoult v. The New York Times whirlwind that kicked up over the last couple of weeks. Jason Pinter’s interview with the duo for The Huffington Post provides an abundance of mill-grist, so let’s take a look (Ape note: we have never read a work by either Picoult or Weiner.).
1. I am shocked, SHOCKED, to discover there is gambling in this establishment!
Jennifer Weiner: I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book - in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic's attention.
Takeaway: Unfortunately, Weiner’s basic point is correct: female writers have not received the same sort of attention that male writers have. So it’s not the sentiment that is particularly interesting here, but the timing (after all, Woolf covered this all 80 years ago in A Room of One’s Own). There seems to be something specifically galling about the Franzen hoopla for Weiner (let’s put a pin in the phrase “serious critic’s attention” for future use).2. Sometimes the Answer is in the Question
Picoult: …When in today's market you only have a limited review space for books, I wonder what the rationale is for the New York Times to review the same book twice, sometimes in the same week.
Takeaway: The people who write about books for The Times want to write about books they think are important, not giving the widest possible coverage. The narrowing of the focus necessarily increases the wattage given to certain books, and multiple reviews of high profile books tempers the clout of any individual review with multiple perspectives.
3. The Medium is the Message
Picoult:… I read a lot of commercial fiction and a lot of the same themes and wisdoms I find in commercial fiction are the same themes and wisdoms as what i see lauded in literary fiction.
Takeaway: One thing that the both Picoult and Weiner seem to overlook is the primacy of form in “serious criticism.” Perhaps Picoult is right that the themes and wisdoms are similar, but presumably the style and shape of those themes and wisdoms are not. The mass market appeal of a Picoult novel (or for that matter a Larsson or Grisham) due to “readability” suggests an artlessness that doesn’t appeal to people who spend their lives thinking about literature.
4. Careful, your Ad Hominem is Showing
Weiner: First of all, I think it's hilarious that a guy who went to Sidwell Friends, Yale and Johns Hopkins, favors "made-to-measure Lord Willys shirts," snacks on charcuterie, sips Calvados and throws book parties at "the velvet-cloaked Russian Samovar" is presuming to lecture anyone on what constitutes true populism. Let the word go forth: my populism is real...and it's spectacular.
Takeaway: This is not a takeaway so much as it is context: both Weinder and Picoult went to Princeton.
5. The Flattening of Culture
Weiner: How can anyone claim the paper plays fair when genre fiction that men read gets reviewed but genre fiction that women read doesn't exist on the paper's review pages? It would be as if the paper's film critics only reviewed tiny independent fare and refused to see so much as a single frame of a romantic comedy, or if the music critics listened to Grizzly Bear and refused to acknowledge the existence of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga. How seriously would a reader take a critic like that?
Takeaway: Weiner suggests that a literary critic should have the same breadth as a critic of music or film, but as any serious reader knows, literature, as a genre, resists that sort of coverage. A film reviewer could reasonably see all the new releases in any given week; this is simply impossible for even the most active book reviewer. Couple that with the relative depth of serious book reviews and you start to see why the reviews in The Times can seem more arbitrary than its film or music reviews.
6. Yea, But See, They Don’t Care About That.
Weiner: I think if the NYT cares about its darlings finding a wider audience, the smartest thing it can do is be a little more respectful toward the books readers are actually reading.
Takeaway: It’s not at all clear that this is the mission of the NY Times. In fact, we sincerely hope it isn’t. If the goal of The Times was to give attention to the books people were actually reading, we’d have mostly Twilight, Clive Cussler, and Sophie Kinsella reviews. And the food writing would be about Doritos.
Criticism is the last line of a winnowing process that starts with agents, moves to publishers, then to booksellers and critics. Whatever cache the Times Review still has is because there is a level of discernment implied in what it reviews. Take away that discernment and the prestige evaporates. We’re not suggesting that the Times doesn’t require self-reflection (what doesn’t after all?), but that asking them to map popularity is counter-productive.
7. I Still Don’t Get It
Weiner: I think a most respectful and informed attitude toward a wider range of books would help everyone - commercial writers, literary writers, men, women, and, most importantly, readers.
Takeaway: Weiner and Picoult, by their own admission, make a jillion dollars from their books and their readers adore them. What “help” do they need exactly? We wish they would just pull a full Fredo and say it: “I want respect and I was passed over!” We can understand this feeling and do indeed sympathize with it.
There is a case to be made, we think, that most readers feel estranged from literary writing; it is difficult, provocative, and sometimes experimental. It is, in a very real way, artistically elitist. And it’s these types of books that The Times highlights. Weiner and Picoult might be spot on when they say their books are similar enough to Hornby or Tropper to warrant inclusion: we are not familiar enough to say.
If the Ape is honest with his primate-self, though, our attitude about the discernment of “serious critics” echoes the sentiment of Colonel Nathan Jessop in Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men: I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.But perhaps those of us who care about such things need to do a better job watching the watchers.